In commemoration of International AIDS Day, the Parliament began with the formal unveiling of the International AIDS Quilt in the picturesque area known as the Company’s Garden. Each one of hundreds of hand-sewn panels commemorates a victim of the disease, yet the Quilt project itself is a symbol of hope and life’s triumph. The founder of the quilt, Cleve Jones, joined with several religious and spiritual leaders from around the world to engage in dialogue about the role of religious and spiritual communities in fighting the disease that has claimed the lives of so many people. The quilt was an especially poignant reminder of both the epidemic of AIDS in South Africa, and the role that religious and spiritual traditions play in facing the critical issues that face the world at the end of the millennium.
Participants then proceeded down Government Avenue to Darling Street and on to District Six. Costumes religious garb, banners and wonderful cultural variety made for a colorful and moving experience for marchers and spectators alike. With over 10,000 marchers, the procession was a highlight for many Parliament participants. The presence of protesters demonstrating their displeasure with the Parliament and its commitment to interreligious dialogue and cooperation did not diminish the spirit or the enthusiasm of the marchers.
When the procession arrived in District Six, an area symbolic of both dispossession and of the human spirit, those who had once lived in this lovely spot under Table Mountain welcomed the marchers. Past residents of District Six described to those gathered how their once vibrant community was displaced when the apartheid-era government designated the area as “white-only,” and removed the residents to distant, under-resourced townships. In the moving ceremony that followed, religious and spiritual leaders from around the world spoke of other tragic examples of dispossession, and blessed the land and those displaced to remind us that it should never happen again.
The fact that the 1999 Parliament began with the opening of the Aids Quilt and the ceremony in District Six focused attention on the fact that every religious and spiritual community faces the same critical issues and challenges at the threshold of the 21st century.
Participants would spend the next week struggling with difficult problems, searching for creative solutions, and making commitments—all in the context of this immense and powerful convergence of the world’s great religious and spiritual traditions.
From District Six, now the spiritual center of the Parliament, participants moved to the Good Hope Center for the Opening Plenary session. The Parliament experience gathered momentum as a spectacular opening ceremony welcomed thousands of adherents of the world’s religious and spiritual traditions. Religious and Spiritual Leaders from a wide array of religious and spiritual traditions welcomed participants, and offered blessings from their traditions. At the end of a rich program with many spiritual, musical, and inspirational elements, the Chairs of the two Parliament Boards of Trustees (US-International and South African) struck the huge Japanese taiko drum at center stage to call the Parliament into session for eight days.
And the day was not yet over. That evening, attendees assembled once again, this time for the first in a series of evening plenary celebrations. On this firstnight, the theme of the gathering was “Sharing Sacred Practice.” After an exhausting day, exuberant participants perused their program books to prepare for the next, when the full Parliament program would be underway.